Monday, October 8, 2012

Nightblue's "Avenue Q" a pleasant surprise

The cast of Nightblue Performing Arts Company's "Avenue Q"

Suburban-based Nightblue Performing Arts Company isn't exactly a known commodity in the Chicago theater community, but I suspect that will soon change on the bases of their production of the Tony award-winning musical "Avenue Q." Acting, singing, choreography, production values and orchestration elements were all high, well exceeding the $30 ticket price. The bar has been set high for their next Chicago endeavor, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The show is a loving spoof and homage to children's television programs (specifically "Sesame Street," but there are also jokes referencing "The Electric Company" and others). Naive, wide-eyed recently college graduate Princeton (Adam Fane) finds himself on the Avenue after starting at Avenue A and continuing to move down through both streets and alphabet letters until he finds a neighborhood that he can afford. Q is home to an idealistic teaching assistant Kate Monster (Casi Maggio) who dreams of opening a special school for monsters (a Monsterssori), happy-go-lucky intellectual Nicky (Jason Richards Smith), Nicky's uptight, closeted, Republican roommate Rod (Fane), a would-be therapist Christmas Eve (Kate Garassino), her unemployed, ne'er-do-well fiance Brian (Alex Heika), resident porn sexpert Trekkie Monster (Smith) and the down-on-his luck former child star and now superintendent Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman and played by David Robbins).

Adam Fane as Princton in "Avenue Q"
In the dual role of Princeton and Rod, Fane is equal parts charming, boy next door and repressed, ranging closet case. Fane is able to switch characters quickly and each has their own unique mannerisms, singing voice and speaking voice.

As Kate Monster, Casi Maggio is the heart of the show. She has a lovely voice that is powerful when it needs to be, yet she is able to capture Kate's vulnerability as well.

As Nicky and Trekkie Monster, Jason Richards Smith lands all of the comedic moments. His Trekkie is less creepy and more lovable. Despite his computer addiction, you want to just give him a hug.

As Christmas Eve, Garassino manages to be more than just a racial stereotype for laughs. Her nuanced performance of "The More You Ruv Someone" was both heartfelt and funny.

Heika has less to do as Brian (the fault of the script and not his acting or vocal talent). Double casting him as one of the Bad Idea Bears was sheer genius as it gave him more opportunity to display his comedic timing.

Several other things set things apart from usual productions of this show. The most noticeable is the company's decision to create their own puppets as opposed to renting them. With the exception of Lucy the slut, the puppet designs by Noah Ginex bare little resemblance to those used on Broadway (the same puppets people usually rent). As a result, the production is able to forge its own identity.

The second was director David E Walter's decision to forgo puppets for the Bad Idea Bears (a trio of mischievous minor characters in the show). Actors don teddy bear costumes and we can see their facial expressions (obviously far more expressive than a puppet's).

The third thing is Mike Mendiola's choreography. While the original Broadway production had some dancing, there is more of it here. Though it is the puppeteer whose feet are moving, rather than separating us from puppet, in some strange way it feels like the puppeteer's feet are an extension of the puppet.

The end result was a smaller production that almost rivaled its Broadway counterpart. No easy feat for any company, let alone one trying to establish itself in the competitive Chicago market.

Nightblue Performing Arts Company's "Avenue Q" runs through Oct. 14 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets, $27-$30. Call 773-327-5252.

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